Vigilo magazine, October 2009

Plenty has been said and written about the massive amount of building development that has taken place in Malta over the last three decades or so. According to recent reports, the building frenzy may be easing off slightly, so now let us look around and see what has been achieved.

Apart from the unnecessary quantity of construction, a large part of the problem has been the quality of many buildings. Terrible designs and little consideration for context, let alone climate, are typical. Bad workmanship is widespread, and the pleasures of well-designed, attractive open spaces are simply ignored.

Countless developments did not pay sufficient attention to creating good quality living spaces. These buildings did not strive for excellence, to put it mildly, and were not designed to last or embellish their surroundings. Yet unfortunately we will have to live with them for some time to come. The basic approach to development is skewed, with little concern for the wider consequences of individual actions.

In the light of some recent projects, we may now be seeing a slight increase in developments that pay more attention to detail. Quality buildings should not only look good from the outside, they must also feel good inside. Whether big or small, they should be appropriate to their context, and add value to the lives of residents and other users.

If there is now a glut of unwanted apartments on the market, one can only hope that it will no longer be possible to construct an abysmal block of flats on the cheap and expect to sell it, and that future buyers will be offered better choices.

As things stand, planning staff at the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (Mepa) consider whether new plans conform to a set of policies and regulations which measure size, location and other details. They do not seem to be in a position to comment adequately on the overall quality of proposed buildings. These policies and regulations are arguably also aspects of quality, but they are clearly not enough. We can see the dismal results all around us.

A history of bad decisions, with the ensuing controversies and a lack of confidence in the system, has also made it difficult to enable innovative and creative design ideas to deviate from the norm. One mediocre design follows another, with too few exceptions.

This issue has often been raised, for example, the Kamra tal-Periti is advocating an independent design review commission as well as a national policy on architecture. Where do the majority of our architects stand on the issue of designing quality buildings? Do they care enough? We are surrounded by ugly and low standard buildings.

There are no easy answers to raising standards, and the idea of improving the quality of our buildings and open spaces is not a focal point of the current proposals to reform Mepa. The question is essentially linked to education and values. The reform concentrates on procedural issues such as the levels of decision and policy making, controls, appointment and composition of the boards, and other issues as planning boundaries and enforcement. The four main pillars of the reform are described as: consistency, efficiency, accountability and enforcement. These issues are a reaction to the disastrous decision-making and lack of accountability, efficiency and enforcement that we have witnessed for too long, and they are welcome efforts to address the situation.

In 1998, the former Director of the Planning Authority wrote about the reform of the planning authority in the newspapers.[1] He suggested that, among other things, the reform should focus on quality of service (including effectiveness, efficiency, transparency and accountability) in the customer interface, the decision making process, the appeals procedure, general organisational proposals, and a review of local plans and the structure plan.

Elsewhere we read that in 1999 the Ministry of Home Affairs organised four regional conferences and a national conference to discuss planning reform, and that suggestions were received from the general public, the local councils, constituted bodies, and so on. A report was commissioned from the Management Efficiency Unit to make proposals on improvements to the organisational set-up of the Planning Authority.[2]

Was this ten years ago, or is it the current reform of Mepa? Hearing the same tune being played over and over again is tedious. It is true that discussions and reviews should always be ongoing, but will real and lasting change be achieved this time?

Undoubtedly, the improvement of dialogue, internal processes and structures, regulation, client relationships, speed of service, checks and balances, and enforcement, are all impressive and commendable objectives.

However the deterioration of the quality of our urban environment, as well as the quality of our open spaces, is a key concern and should be included on centre stage. Otherwise we may have a lot of talk about administrative reform and building quantities, and move back to square one. Let’s talk about quality for a change.

[1] Godwin Cassar, ‘Wheels of change at the Planning Authority’, Sunday Times of Malta (13 December 1998)
[2] Ibid., ‘Planning Authority Reform’ Sunday Times of Malta (29 June 1999)